Lots of speculation on the future of traditional news and digital media brands this past month… The big headline was obviously the loss of more than 1,000 jobs at BuzzFeed, AOL, Yahoo and HuffPost. Yes, even Buzzfeed. “Wasn’t this the company that was supposed to have it all figured out?” the Business of Fashion gasped.Read More
Last week I scooted over to cosy bookshop Libreria to celebrate the joy of magazines and one launch in particular. There are lots of pieces on here that gush about the former so let’s focus on the latter. It’s called Drugstore Culture and takes inspiration from Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard.
No, this isn’t a catalogue of fancy remedies and cures – well, not exactly.Read More
What's the difference between Twitter Live and Periscope? I see the camera button beneath the cursor when I open a window to tweet. And the latter, which Twitter acquired in 2015, is installed on my iPhone – still waiting to be loved. But shouldn't they be doing the same job, allowing smartphone owners to live stream any time anywhere and get instant feedback?
I have another important question. Is anyone regularly using these tools beyond early adopter types, X Factor hopefuls and wannabe celebrities? Who are the must-follow live streamers? How is the company working to nurture its broadcaster community, one that has been largely underserved as this Mashable article explains? And what about Facebook Live, Instagram Live and YouTube Live? Everyone is going live. Where does Twitter fit in?
Only one place to go for answers and that’s London HQ, of course. There, among a small industry crowd, I was given a short presentation about the different ways that people are harnessing the service, from popular individuals like Emmy Award-winning storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski to power publishers like Buzzfeed.
Our host also gave us a glimpse into the future. One key update was that Twitter plans to combine Twitter Live and Periscope to create the go-to live broadcast platform, one that can be accessed and navigated in as fewer clicks as possible like Snapchat. A sensible move for a company that wants to be what’s ‘now’ (or rather “what’s happening in the world and what people are talking about right now”).
Although it’s important to appeal to the general public, both in terms of deepening the pool of available streams and clocking up viewers to woo advertisers, it is clear that brands are also key targets for Twitter. This is a business, after all. Hence the recent launch of Twitter Studio for publishers. Jo Kelly, Twitter’s Head of News EMEA, said that, “The priority is working with news organisations to monetise their content, taking clips from their live streams to market.” This could be in the form of breaking news (Bloomberg is a partner), pre-planned events ( eg Live Nation concerts and Wimbledon) or special programming (Gatorade's #TheBuzz and PopBuzz).
According to their Q4 2017 shareholder letter, Twitter live-streamed more than 1,140 events (up from 830 in Q3) and made 22 new partnerships (nine of which were international). It will be interesting to see how the interests of consumers and brands each impact product development.
Part two of the evening was a panel discussion featuring Evan Hansen (Editor-in-chief of @periscopetv and ex-Wired), John McHugh (Co-founder of news agency @verifeyemedia) and Ryan Broderick (Deputy Global News Director at Buzzfeed). Some good points came out of that conversation. Hansen was predictably buoyant about the service, saying that, “So much of broadcasting has been the fourth wall and distancing yourself from the story. This is more engaging and allows the person streaming to really use the camera to help inform.”
And referring to the more news-driven political reports, he pointed out that, “The arc of these stories is often a lot longer than the initial broadcasts. It’s not just a one-off. There is a whole ripple effect, galvanising people around an issue.”
McHugh is a veteran of mobile journalism. He noted that live broadcasting has been around for a long time. In fact, I have covered pioneers such as Tim Pool and the rise of smartphone-wielding citizen journalists on this site. But the ability to upload content on site, in the midst of a story, is now greater than ever, especially for those working on investigations. One caveat though: he was quick to emphasis the value of personality and insight when live-streaming, particularly if you hope to make money from it.
Otherwise you risk undermining your brand. “When you watch live, the picture can be shaky, noisy but people want to stay with it to see what happens. But if you are live you need to keep it engaging, explain what’s happening…” And your audience can help you do that by asking things you haven’t even thought of. It's not all about flying hearts.
Broderick is an engaging presenter/commentator. He has live-streamed reports everywhere from pro-union protests in Barcelona to North Korea demonstrations at the Winter Olympics. For him, Periscope is “an incredible opportunity to get right in there.” But it goes beyond that. Buzzfeed is still fighting for credibility in the media industry. “We really want to showcase that we have reporters and they know things,” he said. However, he was concerned about the issue of consent as you are putting people live on camera like never before.
Overall I did come away with more questions than answers, many of which Hansen echoed. For instance, how is Twitter going to verify and manage all this user-generated content? Streams could easily be misleading – “context isn’t always there with live,” as he put it. One solution could be to aggregate several feeds/cameras from one event or scene. Safeguarding is also important. Remember last year’s stories about viewers grooming children on the platform?
But let’s finish on a more optimistic note. Well, two actually. Personalisation is always a big carrot for users. So imagine if Twitter could recommend the best content for you using machine learning. That would be invaluable. Secondly, Hansen anticipates a new realm streaming-inspired documentary. “Where could live video go next?” he asks. “What can that bring us in terms of understanding what’s going on in the world and our enhancing our empathy?
Let's get out there and find out.
Music journalism means nothing to far too many people.
Not anymore, anyway.
Frank Zappa said it was for “people who can't write, doing interviews with people who can't think, in order to prepare articles for people who can't read.”
Ok, he was talking about rock journalism in the Seventies specifically, but … small details. My point is that the craft is not taken seriously enough, even by the writers themselves. Last week I read a very interesting article in Crack magazine, written by The Quietus editor Luke Turner. In his short rant, Turner calls out the “age of beige” and asks, when did music journalism stop wielding the axe?
And it’s true. When was the last time you read a cutting review of an album or single? One that stuck you with disbelief as you clocked its jarring headline, only to be left questioning everything by the close of the final paragraph…
All too often, we are presented with a sea of bland, agreeable three-star rundowns, publications seemingly in thrall to the artist and their click-baiting potential. Instead of challenging the reader and holding the artist to account, the aim is to be first – without offending anyone. To catch a wave and rack up those page views.
Clearly, there is just far too much music out there and many platforms/publications prefer to devote their energy to saying positive things – understandable in these troubling times. But balance is important. Do we really need more gushing thinkpieces on the latest Beyoncé or Radiohead?
Dig deep down into a subreddit or blog comments section and I’m sure will find some of the most heated and insightful debate on music. But the national newspapers, magazines and digital platforms such as Pitchfork still have great influence and responsibility. And they should go for the jugular more often, especially in this hot-or-not climate. Film critics like Mark Kermode don’t seem to have a problem with that, although he does enjoy himself a little too much.
Today’s critic may be a Twitter handle and all the rest of it, but they no longer have the monopoly on taste. Their seal of approval carries less weight because it is open to challenges from all sides. The web has given voice to anyone with an internet connection. Whether you are in the thick of some obscure trap scene in Dubai, or live and breathe a particular twist of punk music in Chester, you have the means to start a conversation and stir a debate. What you certainly don’t need is a critic on their high horse telling you what to listen to or spend your money on.
Does that mean that everyone is a critic now, that the professional muso should make way or, god forbid, join the marketing department? Hardly. It takes time, skill and knowledge to write a piece that cuts through the noise and makes an original point in an assured and reasoned way.
“The best criticism takes the weaknesses within a piece of art and turns them against it, rather than personally attacking the artist themselves,” says Turner. “The critic has a duty to the artist to treat them fairly, to not go in ‘studs up’ with preconceptions. Yet beyond that, the journalist owes them nothing. Their responsibility is to the reader, and to themselves, to be honest and fearless, to tell the truth, and to do it with flair.
“Criticism has always had a vital role to play in the relationship between art and the public, acting as a filter and a catalyst for debate. I remember back in the day being infuriated when the NME or Melody Maker hacks would go after one of my favourite groups but the negative review would always make me find new ways of appreciating their work.”
I came to music journalism after turning my back on a career in the law. The suit did not fit. Writing seemed to encapsulate the best of life at that point – a vibrant community, a shot at creativity, the satisfaction of getting paid to do what you love, and the opportunity to learn about the world one track at a time. Rebellion might also have had something to do it. The odd guestlist, too. It’s all a blur…
But how do you become a great music journalist? What’s the secret? Scurrying around the web, I was told that Lester Bangs was the guy to read. Coincidentally, I had just seen Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and couldn’t help but identify with the naïve and earnest 15-year-old lead, a character based on Crowe’s experiences as a young Rolling Stone hack in the Seventies.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the charismatic, free-spirited Bangs, schooling young William Miller on the business and how to stay the course. The prolific Bangs was notorious for being a savage writer, one who would often double back on himself – presumably for his own amusement. In that sense, he represented the worst excesses of ego in the build-em-up-break-em-down heyday of rock journalism. Part of him, anyway.
Greil Marcus, in his introduction to the collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, justifies omitting pieces on Bangs favourites such as Captain Beefheart and Miles Davis like this: “Faced with an artist whose work he loved and respected, Lester often wrote poorly, passively: he often fell back, quoting lyrics rather than saying what he thought, replacing ideas with adjectives.”
That said, the piece the changed it all for me was his review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. I say review, it’s more a meditation, elevating an often routine and formulaic medium to the realms of great literature. This passage is Bangs at his absolute best: “Astral Weeks, in so far as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim.
“It's no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment's knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.”
I dare you to listen to that album, read his article, listen again and not feel illuminated in the deepest sense. That review was written more than ten years after the album came out. And perhaps that’s what it takes to see between the notes. You have to take that album for a walk, live with it, feel it, experience it in the context of your life – the light and dark.
MC Talib Kweli made this point well during this take down of a Pitchfork reviewer in 2015. “Blogs are trying to keep the eyes, literally by the second. This means constant, non-stop content and reviews of pieces of art that are lauded for being first, not fair. How could a writer, any writer, take in an album that took us a year or two to put together, in one day? One week? They couldn’t. So they rely on personal bias and past musical knowledge to fill in the blanks…”
In situations like this, the resulting conversation becomes more about the dispute than the work itself. Reviews of reviews quickly become tedious. As do cookie-cutter previews and first listens of tracks with barely any commentary or analysis. Again, just to be first.
So what is the value of a music critic today? I think it’s about being more than a filter or another voice in the echo chamber. Challenge the listener and maybe, just maybe, you might open a few portals to discovery. And don't be afraid to put yourself into it. As Oscar Wilde says, ‘“That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one's own soul.”
You – your life experience – could be the key to a whole line of inquiry. As was the case with Ann Powers when reviewing Daft Punk’s RAM for NPR. Here is some useful commentary from the 33 1/3 book How To Write About Music.
NYU music criticism teacher Amanda Petrusich concurs: “It is important that a critic know some things about music (history, theory, social utility), and, as with any journalistic pursuit, additional research to bolster that knowledge is paramount. But writers also need to know what they think about a record—how it moves them.”
In turn, a great writer can move the reader. Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings wrote an interesting Facebook post back in the early summer, giving thanks for “the individuals who choose to write about music as artists”, the ones who “set a spark in his mind”. He goes on say those journalists “should fulfil the standards of good creative writing and use music simply as their medium”. In other words, look beyond the functionality and the formulaic. Express yourself. Make it an experience.
Film critic AO Scott, in his book Better Living Through Criticism, argues that “The role of the critic is to resist the manufactured consensus – to interrogate the successful, to exalt the unknown, to argue for ambiguity and complexity.” So don’t be afraid to ruffle a few feathers and challenge this notion of objectivity. Stand firm in the face of hungry trolls and bruised egos. You can be largely positive about a review and still be critical. I thought Lou Reed did a great job with Kanye’s Yeezus.
And finally… Don’t be the kind of writer that Dan Ozzi describes in this Noisey article: “Maybe that’s what people have wanted from criticism all along – to simply be told what they already knew, to reinforce the opinions they’ve long held, and to read positive words about things they like, nodding along gleefully without being challenged.”
This was not a lecture. If anything, it is one big note to self.
If you are thinking about becoming a music journalist, then say something.
PS I may have been reading the wrong reviews and features. If so, which ones stick in your mind? Who are your favourite music critics? Let's start with the one-star gems and work our way up.
Mobile journalists are making the leap to documentary and Leonor Suarez is among those leading the way…
The thought of making films with a smartphone is so liberating. I’ve often shared my love for documentaries, and many of you will remember how Hollywood cooed over Sundance feature Tangerine, shot entirely on an iPhone. Now, as Apple prepares for its latest launch, the journalism and film industries both stand to benefit. And this is progress, let’s be clear. Ideas and effort should be the only real barriers to entry, not technology or privilege.
For every old school skeptic looking on as they caress their RED, Alexa or Canon 7D, there’s another person – iPhone tucked in pocket – getting out there and surprising themselves with their ability. One example is Leonor Suarez, who gave an inspiring talk yesterday at monthly meet-up MoJo London. Suarez is a news editor and reporter for Televisión del Principado de Asturias (TPA) and makes 20-minute packages for the broadcaster, working with a specialist cameraman. Two years ago she had never tried to film any type of journalistic content on her phone, and had no interest in the technical side. After attending a MoJo gathering she dived straight into long-form.
One catalyst was the abundance of great stories Suarez would come across from day to day. She also wanted to have more creative control over how the final broadcast would look. Her first piece was an 11-minute report on a community arts project under threat in Oviedo, shot and edited on an iPhone 4 and delivered against a tight deadline.
Patience was key. Suarez had to handle every aspect of the report, from lighting to interviewing. It’s what she describes as a “handcrafted job”. However, the added responsibility also became an opportunity for Suarez to “grow as a journalist” because “filming enhances your creativity”. Since then, she has gone on to cover a broad range of topics: a new wave of farmers in Picos de Europa; Michelin-starred chef Nacho Manzano cooking with flowers; and the Potosi silver mines in Bolivia.
Suarez showed clips of these on the night. She stumbled upon the Potosi mines story while on holiday. Many of us were impressed by quality of the shots captured in such poor light. She said that focusing using Filmic Pro, the “gold standard of mobile video”, was difficult so she reverted to the native camera on her iPhone 5s. And that wasn’t the only useful tip. Here are a few more:
- Phone capacity is still an issue for documentary makers so if you are shooting for more than an hour then always have a spare memory stick to hand. Suarez Velcros one to the tripod, together with a battery.
- Back up everything at least twice. Once to an external hard disk such as a 256gb iPad (using AirDrop), and again to the Google Drive or a similar cloud provider.
- Make use of in-built image stabilisation. Don’t be afraid to try pans and tilts if you think this will help to convey the story.
- Edit in iMovie if you can. Using a phone can be really hard on the eyes and it’s awkward to perform tasks such as editing audio.
- Learn to work within your particular constraints, eg time and conditions. For instance, use any existing light sources around you. A good example is the hardhat lamps in the mines documentary. Keep interviews short and have a preliminary conversation off camera beforehand to identify key questions.
- Don’t feel unprofessional just because you are using a phone instead of a bigger camera and crew. This is the now!
- Think about engagement. That means cutting trailers and teasers with instant visual appeal and snappy soundbites.
– iPhone 6s
– Auxiliary battery
– Manfrotto 500 series tripod
– Rode NTG2 shotgun mic
– iRig Pro audio interface
– TRRS adaptor cable
So what next? Suarez predicts that the line between camera operator and scriptwriter will continue to blur as journalists become more adept at visualising the stories they want to tell. Judging by her next project about the last days of the Spanish Civil War, Suarez will also be experimenting with form and narrative, making the most of the iPhone’s close-up capability and employing other techniques such as reconstruction.
As the technology becomes even more powerful and compact, reporters will be able to get right into the nooks and crannies of a piece to capture amazing footage. A mine, an attic, an ants’ nest… Given time, space and money, filmmakers would still prefer traditional broadcast set-ups for capturing footage to air on giant home TVs. But there are advantages to using a smartphone, not least because people are familiar with them. Hence, they are put at ease.
"I didn't have to take a camera crew with me, says RTE new co-ordinator Eleanor Mannion, who shot an hour-long documentary called The Collectors on an iPhone 6s Plus in 4K for RTE. “I could just go on my own and have conversations with people about their collections. The medium didn’t get in the way of the story and that was really important to me. It allowed me another level of intimacy and honesty…”
You can hear more about Mannion’s experiences on the production at the next Mojo London meet up on 11 October. See you there.